They followed Kova’s parents deeper through the forest, but soon, the trees became more and more dispersed. The mushroom trees stopped and were replaced by the tall trees with beautiful blue and silver leaves that glistened as the sun’s rays shined on them.
The river widened, nearly covering an entire section of the forest, which opened up into a wide-open space. The sun shining on the river made the water glisten and appear more golden in color.
The village huts were all on wooden stilts over the water of the river in the shallower parts. Hundreds of people crowded the area, but it didn’t seem to be over crowded.
To the left, a woman sat in front of a wooden structure similar to an ancient loom but instead of clothing or blankets, the woman weaved netting.
In front of one hut, a man and woman worked together to throw a net in the deeper section of the river. That was when Nisa realized that the woman was weaving a net. For a moment, Nisa pulled her thoa to a stop and watched the woman, how gracefully her hands worked on every intricate detail.
“Netting,” Kova’s mom said. “It’s a form of art here.”
Nisa hopped off her thoa and used the reins to lead it. Water covered most of the ground here but it didn’t feel, look, or smell like a swamp. In fact, fresh and spicy scents slammed into Nisa’s nose and one of them made her stomach growl.
“Hungry?” Kova’s dad asked her.
Nisa lightly blushed, but nodded. Oliver, Chris, and Susie hopped off their thoas, which were getting antsy because of the water. They drank it just fine, but the creatures didn’t want to walk in it. “Haven’t had breakfast yet,” she replied.
“Do you have somewhere we can keep our thoas safely?” Vanmor asked. He hopped off his and petted the creature’s neck to try to calm it down.
Kova’s dad pointed to the right. “The river ends that way, where we keep a few thoas just in case we need to travel. Tell them you’re a guest of Kolach, and the herders will take care of your thoas.”
Nisa followed behind Vanmor since he seemed to know where he was going far better than the rest of them did. It was about half a mile before the river thinned out and the ground returned. Here, the trees had thickened and she suspected that the mushroom trees couldn’t grow in water.
A herd of thoas ate peacefully on the grass, guarded by two men and a woman with white hair and colored streaks.
“We are guests of Kolach. He said you would watch our thoas for us,” Vanmor said.
The three people inclined their heads. “Of course! Guests of Kolach are always welcome.”
Nisa turned toward her thoa and lifted her supply bag off its back. The others did the same, but it took her longer. By then, the men had taken the other thoas and ushered them into the herd. The woman took hers and Nisa slung her supply bag over her shoulder, following the others back to the fishing village.
“This is such a beautiful place!” Ena gushed.
Nisa smiled as they stepped back in the ankle-deep water. Here, it was cool and pristine, with just enough of a light breeze to feel good in the sun. “I know. I could stay here forever.”
Oliver planted a kiss on her cheek. “If only we could,” he whispered as he passed her by.
“Please!” Kova’s father pointed to a hut as his wife carried Kova inside. “Leave your supplies in the hut as we prepare breakfast for you. I’m sure you’re all hungry.”
Music played as Nisa followed the others inside the hut, but she couldn’t figure out where it came from. A short ladder led up to the outer deck. The doors were left open and Nisa found herself suddenly wanting a house like this back home. When they returned to Earth, she definitely planned on buying one. Then again, there was no telling how expensive they were on Earth.
Kova’s mother sat him down in the far, back, right corner and pulled a curtain around him. She smiled and gestured to the opposite corner. “You can set your supplies down there.”
Susie and Bea dropped theirs first, so Nisa hurried up to squeeze between Aleyr and Chris to drop hers next to Susie and Bea’s. Vanmor grunted and lay his on the ground. He leaned against the wall and slid down with a wince.
As the others sat down their supplies, Nisa sat down beside him.
Kova’s mother went back outside and through the open doors, Nisa could see that she and Kova’s father met up at a campfire large enough for five spits to hang overtop it, filled with fish meat. A large leaf of some sort was placed beneath it, so she watched in awe as the leaf kept the flames from burning the wood of the deck where they kept it.
“Vanmor, are you really okay?” Nisa asked.
He nodded, leaning his head back against the wall. “Yes. I’m still sore, but I’ll be alright.”
“I was really worried you were going to die on us.”
Vanmor peaked his eyes open. “I guess that means we’re friends, then, huh?”
Nisa nodded with a smile. “Yes. We are.” Her eyes glanced down at the floor.
Vanmor shot her a sideways glance. “You don’t want to leave, do you?”
Nisa shook her head, glancing over her shoulder where she finally found a group of people sitting around another campfire on a different deck, playing drums and lutes. “No, I don’t. But my friends deserve to get home, so we should continue on our way tomorrow.”
Vanmor nodded and placed a hand on Nisa’s shoulder. “If that’s what you want. But Nisa… just because your friends go home, doesn’t mean you have to.”
“What?” Her eyes widened and she stared at him in shock. “Wh—of course I do. I mean, I can’t just leave them. They’re—they’re my friends. Have been for years. I don’t know what I would do without them!”
Vanmor nodded. “It was just a thought, Nisa. Don’t worry. If it makes you feel any better, the rest of us are going to miss you too. Even Aleyr, I think.”
“Where will you guys go after this?”
Vanmor shrugged. “I’m not sure. I’ll probably go back to study more magic. But after the companionship, I can’t see myself being alone anymore.”
“I know Ena might want to stay with you. Aleyr, I’m not too sure about. But Teho has nowhere else to go. Kor’ok has a job back in that one town, but I think he actually likes traveling.”
Vanmor met her eyes. “Me too. I think it would be good for us to all stay together.”
“Hey.” Oliver poked his head in the doorway. Nisa hadn’t even noticed the others had left the place. “Food’s ready.”
“That fast? I thought it took forever to cook meat over a fire.”
Vanmor pointed to the fire outside. “Those are heat-stones. They cook much faster than regular fire.”
Nisa helped him stand and he thanked her. As they made their way outside and back down the ladder, she stared at the fire. Sure enough, golden flames rose from stones at the bottom, not sticks and other flammable material as she had been expecting.
Nisa sat in between Ena and Teho. Until they returned home, she planned to enjoy every moment she was here.
It wasn’t as if they would ever be able to come back and that thought…
It brought her more sadness than she expected.
That night, they sat around the fires with the people of the village as the people laughed and played music. They told stories, legends of wild creatures that swam in the rivers, creatures that their ancestors hunted as a coming-of-age trial. They stayed awake until the moon was full and then slept peacefully in Kova’s parents’ hut, who were gracious enough to let them stay.
The next morning, they fetched their thoas and Nisa reluctantly said goodbye to the village. As they continued making their way through the forest, Vanmor told them that The Tower was only half a day’s ride way.
Nisa glanced around at her friends and companions, finding it hard to believe that in a few hours, they all might finally be heading back to home to Earth. All this time, all this adventure on this beautiful world. The people they had all met, everything they had gone through…
Aleyr, Teho, Vanmor, Ena. The adventure they had. How could Nisa return to a normal life after all of this? It didn’t seem possible, but as she met gazes with Bea, and then Susie, looked at Chris and then locked eyes with the love of her life, she realized everything would be okay, as long as she had her friends by her side. What they would do about Callahan and how they would escape the pyramid, if that was, in fact, where they would portal back into, were things they would all figure out.
Everything would be okay and Nisa… Nisa let her gaze linger on this world as they traveled through it since this would be the last time she would ever see it again.